By John Denton Feb. 25, 2018
OKLAHOMA CITY – Aaron Gordon is fascinated with the patterns of human behavior, he’s worked with a sports psychologist for years and much of his vocabulary is spiced with language seemingly straight out of motivational or self-help books.
Rarely, however, has the talented Orlando Magic forward come across any advice or information that can help him deal with the specter of something that’s never completely out of his thoughts.
A restricted free agent on July 1st, Gordon, 22, will soon become an infinitely rich man – either via the Magic or another NBA team pursing him. Undoubtedly, it’s an enviable position to be in, but it’s also an all-consuming proposition and one that Gordon admittedly has trouble pushing to the back of his thoughts, at times, no matter how many behavioral books he reads or ``stay-in-the-moment’’ podcasts he listens to between games.
Does the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Gordon worry that an injury dings his value? Is he concerned that another sour season for the Magic factors negatively into the equation? Do big games and bad games send him on wild, emotional rides while worrying about where his future will take him?
``Of course, of course, I worry,’’ said Gordon, a fourth-year pro who is enjoying a career year with the Magic. ``It’s natural and it’s human to worry. But you work on your mentality so that you can enjoy the present moment instead of worrying. If you’re so caught up in what’s happened or what’s going to happen, you can’t fully enjoy what’s happening right now. `Right now’ is the most important time there is because we don’t always get tomorrow. `Now’ is the most important time, and if you can harness that thinking and find a flow, you can thrive.’’
Signs of Gordon thriving were everywhere on Saturday night in Philadelphia. Even though the Magic (18-41) suffered through a frustration-filled loss to the surging 76ers, Gordon showed signs of getting back to the player he’s been much of this season prior to straining his left hip flexor back on Jan. 27. That injury knocked him out of action for three weeks, knocked him out of the Slam Dunk Contest that he desperately wanted to compete in one last time and knocked him ``out of sorts, out of rhythm and out of shape.’’
Those were Gordon’s words following a Thursday loss to the New York Knicks when he looked like a shell of himself (nine points, three-of-nine shooting) as he was still working himself back into form. Following a couple of days of work on his game and his body, Gordon looked on Saturday more like the player loaded with limitless potential. He had 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and four 3-pointers against the Sixers, allowing the Magic to make a spirited second-half run.
He took little solace in the effort because it came in another defeat, saying: ``I mean, it doesn’t really matter because we lost. If the rhythm that I find isn’t helping my team win, then it doesn’t really matter. I’ll slowly, but surely, work my way back to where it’s affecting the (team) and the outcome of wins.’’
That statement is at the crux of what Magic head coach Frank Vogel said he most appreciates about Gordon, pointing out that ``he cares’’ and that winning ``matters to him.’’
Without question, Gordon cares about the Magic winning, and any mention of salvaging moral victories from losses often cause his brow to furrow and his usually pleasant demeanor to turn salty.
Sometimes, however, Gordon admittedly cares a little too much, as in caring what others think about him. In a day and age where everyone seemingly has an opinion and is eager to share it via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, Gordon said it can sometimes be difficult for him to unplug and escape the noise.
``It takes a lot of work,’’ he admitted candidly. ``One aspect, which I’m still struggling with, is social media and what people say on social media. That takes you out of the present when you listen to that.
``To stay present, you have to have a lot of joy, courage, confidence, compassion and faith,’’ he added. ``You work on those five things, bundle them up and put them in your head and heart, and then you just let it rock and enjoy the moment.’’
Magic guard Evan Fournier was in a similar situation as Gordon two years earlier when he was due to be a free agent following the 2015-16 season. Fournier worked to keep his focus on the task at hand, carved out a career year on the floor and ultimately landed a long-term deal that kept him in Orlando. At times, he’s shared his experiences from that season with Gordon.
``There’s definitely a part where it’s stressful, but you should never think about what’s next or your contract,’’ Fournier said. ``You should stay in the moment and focus on what you’re doing now instead of focusing on what the future holds. That’s how I did it and I’m pretty sure that’s how guys (like Gordon) are thinking. You’ve got to be in the moment, do what you’ve got to do and live with the results.’’
Personally, Gordon has produced the finest results of his basketball life. At 18.2 points per game, he leads the Magic in scoring, his outside shooting and decision-making have steadily improved and almost every other major statistical category of his is at career-high levels. Also, he’s had two 40-point games, four 30-plus-point performances and 12 20-plus-point nights.
And it’s just the start, Gordon stressed.
``I have so much more to go, a ton more in the tank,’’ he said with conviction. ``This is just the tip of the iceberg.
``I have a goal in mind and, ultimately, it’s to just master basketball,’’ he added later. ``The goal is to master it fully. The great thing about basketball, it’s so progressive and it’s always changing and it’s hard to master it. But the goal for me will always be to master basketball. And I want to win championships. I know that’s hard to say when we’re sitting here with 18 wins, but that’s what I believe. That’s in my head and heart and that’s what I want to do.’’
Naturally, that leads Gordon back to thoughts of his future – a future he fully expects will be in Orlando for years to come. The Magic are the only NBA team he’s ever played for and he says he wants to figure prominently in leading the franchise back to the top of the league.
As a restricted free agent on July 1st, Gordon and his representatives can begin working out a deal with the Magic or seek contractual offer sheets from other franchises. The Magic have the right to match any and all offers that Gordon receives from other teams in order to retain one of their most promising talents.
Those life-changing decisions are still a long way off, but that doesn’t mean they don’t dominate Gordon’s thought processes nearly every day. In some ways, Gordon’s predicament is akin to someone having a winning lottery ticket in hand and being forced to wait months on end to cash it in. Naturally, it would cause one to think about where that future is bound to take them.
As his individual success on the floor has shown, Gordon has done a good job of tamping down those tempting thoughts. He insisted that he’ll continue ``staying present’’ over the rest of this season, because money and contracts aren’t what motivate him; instead, it’s his desire to be great at his craft and to ultimately lead the Magic to success at the forefront of his thoughts.
``It’s not over. This is something where I’m still looking to master the game,’’ he said. ``I don’t care about the money, I care a lot about the wins and I care about mastering this game. Hopefully, mastering the game will (produce) the wins. I just don’t care about any of the other stuff other than loving the game, loving to play and having joy.’’
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.